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Pissing off the Taste Police with John Denver

The cover of his first Greatest Hits album tells you everything you already think you know about John Denver. Looking like a feckless country boy (a status he thanked God for in song) dressed up like a scarecrow, wig and all, he does that boyish, goofy laugh which your granny found so reassuring. All that’s missing is the piece of straw clenched between his hick teeth. Released in 1973, the album cover communicates that this singer is so nice, he lacks the edge of the Carpenters and the raw sexuality of Donny Osmond. Who said we, the cool people, want our entertainers to be fucking nice?

The cover anticipates Denver’s kinship with the Muppets. He looks like one here, and a few years later he joined them. Where other musicians appeared on The Muppet Show giving it a knowing smile and a wink, Denver’s involvement was devoid of irony altogether. He was one of them. He exuded utter sincerity even when conversing with a toy frog. And the critics had always hated him for being so sincere anyway.

The country boy muppet was my formative image of John Denver. For decades, I loathed the man and his work without knowing either. I was just going with the flow. OK, so I liked Annie’s Song. If forced to account for my supposed lapse to the Taste Police, I’d apologise, explaining that it is a sweet song, even though John Denver – yeurgh – sang it. But a sweet song it is. If I was called Annie, I’d get wet hearing it.

I had no idea about John Denver. I consciously avoided exposure to his music, as if it might contaminate me. I mistakenly thought his original Take Me Home Country Road had the yokel C&W arrangement of yee-hah cliché. I thought Leaving On A Jet Plane was an excess in simplicity. I had heard Rocky Mountain High, but never listened to it. I didn’t even know the sublime Sunshine On My Shoulders (which became a US hit in 1974, three years after it was first released)! Until last year, when one of the bloggers I really respect, Whiteray from Echoes In The Wind, uploaded Denver’s Whose Garden Was This album from 1970. I downloaded it. I listened to it. I liked it. Notwithstanding Whiteray’s warning that Sunshine On My Shoulder is insipid (oh, he’s very wrong on that one), I became intrigued by the singer. I read up on Denver, learning that Whose Garden is not considered one of his best album. So there had to be better albums? I stocked up on John Denver’s earlier albums and found that my prejudice had been entirely foolish.

The truth is that John Denver, for all his guileless sincerity, knew how to write a good song and how to interpret those composed by others. Like most Beatles fans, I am wary of other people singing their songs. I can think of only a handful of covers which eclipse the originals (Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends, Stevie Wonder’s We Can Work It Out, Earth Wind & Fire’s Got To Get You Into My Life, perhaps Ray Charles’ Eleanor Rigby). On Rocky Mountain High, Denver eclipses a Beatles original with his very lovely take on McCartney’s Mother Nature’s Son from the White Album (it had to be a McCartney song. Tough I can conceive of Denver singing Lennon’s Working Class Hero. Not that it would necessarily be any better than the turgid original).

Because of Denver’s conservative granny-friendly image – the Richard Clayderman of country – I had presumed he was a Republican (just like granny-unfriendly Neil Young in the ’80s). Again, wrong. He was a vocal critic of Nixon and Reagan. Denver campaigned for Jimmy Carter in 1976, took up social issues such as HIV/Aids when it was not yet fashionable to do so, set up foundations for sustainable living, the environment, the poor. He possibly pissed off portions of his country constituency by denouncing the National Rifle Association. And in 1987, he played a benefit concert at Chernobyl. I’ve mentioned previously the pointed judgment by the British music writer John Doran: people who like his politics won’t like his music; people who like his music won’t like his politics (which means that I might be an anomaly). But doesn’t that make John Denver a subject worth further study?

Denver reportedly sent hand-written letters to fans, which I think is very cool indeed. But it’s not Rock ’n Roll. You don’t get Keef or Prince write you personal notes. Real music fans are like women who like bad guys: we don’t tend to go for the nice guys.

John Denver obviously lacked edge; even in his artistic prime, the early ’70s, he produced some awfully saccharine garbage (For Baby with that kids’ chorus, or fucking Jingle Bells). But at his best, John Denver was an extraordinary musician. His music is much more complex than it is being given credit for (witness the chord changes on Jet Plane, the song on which he, ahem, “predicted his death”), and the man had a fine way of phasing his lyrics (again, lisdten to Sunshine On My Shoulders). Denver’s songs have immense warmth as he reflects wistfully on geography, meterology and, of course, love. They have an ageless immediacy. I’m sorry for having misjudged John Denver for so long. If only he had looked a bit more cool, a bit more like John Prine…

John Denver – Poems, Prayers And Promises.mp3
John Denver – Darcy Farrow.mp3
John Denver – Mother Nature’s Son.mp3
John Denver – Annie’s Song.mp3
John Denver – Leaving On A Jet Plane.mp3
John Denver – Sunshine On My Shoulder.mp3
John Denver – Rocky Mountain High.mp3

Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police:
Barry Manilow
Lionel Richie
The Carpenters
Billy Joel
Neil Diamond
America

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  1. Stephen Kuykendall
    July 15th, 2008 at 23:17 | #1

    I myself grew up on healthy doses of Denver and loved him as I even did the Muppets. I have been happy that as I’ve aged his music has stayed good unlike alot of music I enjoyed as a child.

  2. wzjn
    July 16th, 2008 at 04:29 | #2

    Know what? I can still listen to John Denver here and there. Aged pretty well and I think I appreciate him more now, long past his days.

  3. Uncle E
    July 16th, 2008 at 05:31 | #3

    Really great post, dude. I’ve always had a soft spot for John Denver. But did you ever notice how much he looked like C.W. McCall of “Convoy” fame? Fuckin’ uncanny!!

  4. Anonymous
    July 16th, 2008 at 08:15 | #4

    Great post! I hate myself for liking some John Denver songs. I was just trying to explain that Rocky Mountain High is a total LSD anthem. She’s not buying it.It’s a Colorado Rocky Mountain highIve seen it rainin’ fire in the skyFriends around the campfire and everybody’s high!

  5. Kit
    July 16th, 2008 at 14:19 | #5

    How about the lovely “Rhymes & Reasons”? Here in Italy it was a very popolar song of his, as it was the soundtrack of a famous 70s commercial.

  6. fretz
    July 16th, 2008 at 21:48 | #6

    Hall & Oates, and now John Denver — two of my favorites, albeit for very different reasons. Besides his flair for writing undeniably pretty melodies, another big part of JD’s appeal in the 1970s was his outspoken advocacy for environmental protection, which he wrote right into many of his songs. In “Rocky Mountain High,” for example, after singing about being “high” on the mountains (a high that JD admitted to enhancing on occasion with pot — not LSD, sorry “anonymous”!), JD wonders why people must always “tear the mountains down” — a reference to overdevelopment in Colorado in the early 70s. There are lots of other lines like that in his other songs. So anyway, there were (and are) plenty of reasons to like John Denver, despite the Taste Police! Thanks for another great post.

  7. Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas
    July 17th, 2008 at 02:50 | #7

    When Paloma and I began our vinyl quest recently, John Denver’s Greatest Hits was one of the first LPs I (proudly) snagged.As for writing letters to his fans not being very rock and roll, I’m going to respectfully disagree. It goes completely against form and what’s more rock and roll than that?

  8. german albgardis in Amerika
    July 20th, 2008 at 17:24 | #8

    My first “contact” with John Denver was the song “Thank God I’m a Countryboy” in 1975. It was played as a new entry in the weekly “Schlagerderby” broadcasted on Deutschlandfunk. I did not understand many words, just one here and there, and so my impression was completely un-influenecd by the text. It was just a sound carpet for me, like so many other english songs I liked in those days. I did like the song, yes, for its rhythm. Who cares about genre at age 12? I certainly did not! I liked the song, and I sang along everytime the title came around. The rest was too fast for me, haha.Since 1979 I realize my personal musical taste does no longer go along with the public’s taste. Dunno why, but it is so. What is considered cool, you can bet I won’t like it. Not because I’d want to support uncool, no, I just have another taste then most people. I am not influenced by fashion either. Maybe that is the main point. Fashions come and go, musical styles become in and then out, but my taste stays the same. Maybe that is why I have never disliked John Denver. I have liked him in 1975, and later even bought a Double LP with his Greatest Hits. Thanks for another great post.

  9. Jumpin’ Jack
    July 21st, 2008 at 05:28 | #9

    Like Whiteray, I grew up on John Denver. I discovered him via Peter, Paul, and Mary’s cover of Leaving on a Jet Plane at about 8 years old in 1972. In time, I had all of his “stage 1” albums, but new the end was coming with the Jacques Cousteau-inspired “Windsong”. Indeed, I bought “Spirit”, and, for all the negative reasons half-hearted dude mentions here, couldn’t finish listening to it,and never bought another album.However, he was my first live experience, in London in 1977 or so, and I still have the album from that concert, but the main reason I’m commenting here is because of how many other GREAT early albums the guy released. “Take Me To Tomorrow” and Aerie are easily the equal of Whose Garden Was This, and Farewell Andromeda includes two songs, I Guess I’d Rather Be a Cowboy and Rocky Mountain Suite (Cold Nights in Canada), that are the equal of Rocky Mountain High for their Rocky Mountain spirit. There are other fine songs there, too, including a cover of the Prine/Raitt Angel from Montgomery. But it’s Aerie that truly soars — including the powerful hit “The Eagle and the Hawk”, it also has his absolute best Vietnam song — and it’s before its time in landing in the grey area. Check out “Readjustment Blues” (I forget who wrote it), as well as Buddy Holly and City of New Orleans covers.”Rhymes and Reasons” has a spirited cover of ‘The Love of the Common People’, and empty and nearly empty spaces (hysterical) for odes to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, and ‘all the good they’ve done’, and the aforementioned Take Me To Tommorrow contains two angry and convincing revolution-themed songs. Yeah, the guy went soft, but he started with grit and conviction.Just before he died, I though he was coming back — the Wild Montana Skies duet with Emmylou was the best thing he’d done in 20 years.

  10. Dan
    July 24th, 2008 at 22:35 | #10

    Put the Wildlife Concert in your Netflix queue. You will be very, very glad you did.

  11. Jennifer
    June 12th, 2010 at 20:12 | #11

    Glad you came around to enjoy the beauty of John Denver’s music. Simple is good.

  12. DSB
    September 19th, 2011 at 20:39 | #12

    There was a darkness in his soul that became apparent as you listened to his music; he was near-suicide when he came to Colorado and found a new life, and he threw away his old life with his old name and called himself Denver. There was something bare and stony under all that hopefulness, a loneliness no campfire could brighten, and yet he laughed and wrote songs of joy and got busted for mowing his lawn naked. He was crazy, but good crazy.

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